VATICAN CITY: The flood of secret Vatican documents leaked to the press, enraging the Holy See, aims to oust the Church's powerful number two and maybe to replace the pope himself, experts say.
The so-called "Vatileaks" scandal is a plot within the intrigue-filled Vatican City to unseat Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone, seen by some as wielding too much power and not acting in the Church's interests, they say.
"The documents that have been leaked all concern Bertone in one way or another," Marco Politi, Vatican expert for Il Fatto Quotidiano daily, told AFP.
"This is all about damaging him to get a new secretary of state," he added.
As the Vatican moves to root out whistle blowers who have been copying and leaking private documents straight from Pope Benedict XVI's desk, rumours have been circulating in the Italian media over whether the plot may run deeper.
Frustration over the management of Church scandals in recent years -- from allegations of money-laundering to clerical sex abuse -- has apparently led some to begin preparing the way for their chosen candidate to become future pope.
"A group of cardinals has begun to act on a very ambitious aim: to take the secretary of state, and then, conquer the conclave (the assembly which elects a new pope) with a chosen pope among them," said La Repubblica newspaper.
Bertone, a close ally of Benedict, has sparked controversy in some quarters, in particular over his management of the Vatican bank, which has come to symbolise the opacity and scandal gripping the Holy See's administration.
The leaked documents have shed light on many Vatican secrets, including the Church's tax problems, child sex scandals and negotiations with hardline traditionalist rebels.
Although they do not reveal any great surprises, the secret papers have lifted the lid on deep-seated venom among rival figures in the Vatican.
Leaks in January revealed a bitter battle between Bertone and Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, who had been attempting to clean up the Vatican's finances when he was removed from his post -- allegedly for cracking down on corruption.
Vigano wrote to the pope and begged not to be punished for rooting out examples of favours, waste and financial mismanagement which set the Vatican back millions of euros (dollars) in higher contract prices -- but to no avail.
Insiders say the pope was not strong enough to challenge Bertone's decision.
"These leaks are bullets aimed at Bertone. They want to sink him, to force him to resign," Italian theologist Vito Mancuso told journalists last week.
The cardinal, 78, also infuriated critics last week for his reported role in pushing the Vatican bank to oust its head, Ettore Gotti Tedeschi -- an expert on financial ethics -- for not toeing the line.
Gotti Tedeschi had been tasked with getting the Vatican on the "white list" of financially virtuous countries, but frictions arose when Bertone insisted on maintaining the bank's independence and appeared intent on watering down a new transparency law.
"Bertone has too much power. We have to expose the rot in the Church," one of the Vatican moles told La Repubblica. "Those who leak, do it for the good of the pope," the source said.
Tensions rose to boiling point at the beginning of last week when the Vatican threatened to sue journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi for his new book, "His Holiness", which gathers together a whole host of freshly leaked documents.
In a move to stem the leaks, the Vatican quickly arrested Benedict's personal butler Paolo Gabriele for possessing secret papers, and it is currently questioning many others who work in close proximity with the pope.
Rumours are that there are around 20 whistle blowers who have been supplying the media with documents -- at least two have spoken out anonymously -- and it is not clear if the Holy See will be able to patch up the damage done so far.
"What's certain is that Tarcisio Bertone will not come out of this in a positive light," said Vatican expert Sandro Magister.
"The shortcomings of his governance are clear for all to see," he said, adding that the pope might replace him "in the next few months."
According to expert Bruno Bartoloni, the "Vatileaks" scandal may be the last straw for many in an institution dogged by bad governance and corruption.
"This scandal has enormous consequences, it will create unease and exasperation among the cardinals," he said.
"They want to find someone who can do a serious clean up. But in cleaning up, they risk starting a revolution," he added. AGENCIES